Red, white, and the blues

The lack of a true No. 9 dooms the USMNT, who fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, in World Cup Round of 16

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USMNT
The USMNT came up short against the Dutch
Image: Getty Images

How far do moral victories and actual losses go for the United States men’s national team? After failing to defeat The Netherlands at the World Cup, U.S. Soccer needs to take a hard look in the mirror.

There’s one word to describe where the United States men’s national team resides in the landscape of international soccer: Purgatory. The Americans’ third straight World Cup appearance to end in the Round of 16 took place Saturday. The second-youngest team at the tournament — and youngest to make the knockout stage — will depart Qatar with more experience, but also with unknowns. Appearing among the final 16 is better than missing the World Cup, as the USMNT did in 2018. It’s completely fair to view the business trip to Qatar as a dress rehearsal for when North America hosts the quadrennial event in 2026. Only the higher-ups at U.S. Soccer know the answer to this question, but it’s vital it’s answered quickly — how far do the moral victories go?

The Americans’ inexperience showed against the Dutch, falling 3-1. The killer instinct needed to be a global power wasn’t there. Four years down the line, a 28-year-old Christian Pulisic will surely have it. A 27-year-old Tyler Adams is on track to be one of the best midfielders in the world by then. But why wasn’t it there now? A 20-year-old Landon Donovan had it in 2002 at 20 in the only World Cup where the United States won a knockout-round game.

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In review of the tournament — and truly the last four years of American soccer, as everything funnels through the World Cup — the first thing that needs to be evaluated is the job status of head coach Gregg Berhalter. The best way to assess whether he should lead the Stars and Stripes moving forward is by his own edict. Treat the World Cup as two different tournaments — the group stage, and the knockout round. The head coach oversees everything. As you grade the USA, you judge Berhalter. The USMNT was impressive in its first three games as the only team in Qatar to not concede a goal in open play during that stretch. Two first-half goals were the Americans’ only scoring efforts in the group stage. So, it wasn’t perfect. The Yanks advanced and that’s truly most of what matters. No doubt a Sadio Mane-less Senegal would’ve been an easier knockout opponent. Group B-winners England earned that right. I give the U.S. a group-stage grade of B+.

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Now onto that loss to The Netherlands. This was a masterclass from Holland on how to take advantage of scoring chances. The USMNT had a great start, had opportunities at the Dutch goal, and better overall play in the first half. Against good teams, without a goal, that’s far from good enough. Dutch-born U.S. defender Sergiño Dest had his best 45 minutes in an American uniform to start the game — and got beat once on the final play of the half and Daley Blind scored. Adams had been exemplary in the tournament. The first time he loses track of the opposing player he’s responsible for defending, Memphis Depay scores. The usually solid American midfield looked average for the first time in Qatar. Yunus Musah looked gassed about a half hour in and was never subbed off. Weston McKennie didn’t make a major difference. Adams put out tons of fires, but that matters less amid an inferno.

Knockout round games tend to expose every issue a national team brings to a World Cup if you’re on the losing end. In 2014, the lack of experienced finishers at the international level hurt the USMNT. Jürgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan at home didn’t hurt him until that knockout-round loss to Belgium. For Berhalter, it was his overall personnel choices. He should be applauded for bringing back Tim Ream and playing the Fulham center back every second the USA was on the field in Qatar. Berhalter brought in three strikers to the showcase, two of whom proved to be ineffective at a World Cup — Jesus Ferreira and Haji Wright. When Josh Sargent got injured against Iran, Berhalter essentially left the U.S. with its pants down, ass out, ready to be spanked. The Netherlands obliged.

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Wright scored the only goal against the Dutch where either a mis-hit was the perfect decision or his pop-up was a stroke of genius. Doesn’t matter, he clearly touched the ball and it went into the net.

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Wright had two other golden chances and didn’t cash in against Holland and he looked completely useless in his three other World Cup appearances. Ferreira got the start against The Netherlands as the central striker and was invisible, being subbed off at halftime for Gio Reyna. Why couldn’t the Borussia Dortmund forward have started? Reyna didn’t have a standout performance, but he wasn’t put in his ideal position either. Moving Tim Weah to the middle and having Reyna on the right side of the USA attack was the right move. Playing Reyna with his back to goal was an odd tactical decision. Berhalter was late to react the entire tournament with substitutions. He waited too long to bring on Brenden Aaronson in a win-or-go-home game. You throw everything forward with your tournament life at risk and the U.S. still had one change at its disposal in stoppage time.

At the USA’s weakest position, bringing three strikers to Qatar was a mistake from the jump. If you didn’t plan to play Joe Scally or Luca De La Torre one second of the tournament, why leave Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi at home? Of course, you can’t predict injuries, but Berhalter betting on Wright and Ferreira to make a difference was the wrong move and speaks more to his isolationist mentality than any other decision from the World Cup. Your strikers scored one goal in four games. No country hoping to win on the international stage gets that output. Also, Aaronson and Reyna had a combined zero starts in Qatar. Two of the Americans’ best five players only saw the field in the second half of games. Berhalter’s grade for the knockout stage is a D-, only not a complete failure because of how imposing the USMNT looked at times.

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Tabulating the results leads to a result of 75 out of 100. The B+ gets an 88 and the D- is represented by a 62. The definition of average. That’s the tough part about exiting the World Cup. This tournament felt like American progress and stagnancy co-existing. Berhalter had four years to find a reliable striker and didn’t. If that guy isn’t in the USMNT talent pool, base your system around not getting exposed up top and Berhalter didn’t make those moves.

Franchise-altering decisions are made in the NFL around a starting quarterback. No team wins a Super Bowl without a proper signal-caller. No team wins a World Cup without a dangerous striker. Without both, you can’t run an offense effectively. We saw the United States sputter in Qatar without a strong tip of the arrow.

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The last two USMNT managers to lead the team to a Round of 16 World Cup exit kept their jobs into the following year but were on thin ice. Bob Bradley was fired in 2011. Klinsmann made it to 2016 and should’ve been canned a year earlier. With the biggest stakes U.S. Soccer has ever faced coming in 2026, we should know Berhalter’s employment status moving forward soon. Did he help advance how American soccer is portrayed domestically and abroad? Sure. Did he progress it enough in four years on the job? That’s a true coin flip. And why risk the silver-platter opportunity of hosting a World Cup on heads or tails? That’s why I believe Berhalter needs to go. He left substantial doubt he’s the right man to lead the Yanks moving forward. And the USMNT couldn’t afford its existence when arriving back stateside.